Friday, January 4, 2013

Fundamentalism: An Offshoot of Poor Education Or Infantile Personality?

"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg" - Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson's sage quote is well to ponder, because it may well - once put to someone- indicate whether they are semi-educated, or pathologically immature. That is specifically in terms of whether the person betrays himself-herself as a fundamentalist, or has progressed enough to no longer see reality in black and white.

First let's consider the semi-educated or poorly educated proposition: that his (KJV) bible holds 100% of the absolute truth in every passage. However, Scott Soames in his monograph "Understanding Truth” clarifies the issue of more and less general schema to arrive at truth, and what is “materially adequate”, p. 69:

“The characterization of individual instances of (different) schema has consequences for more general definitions of truth. If such instances (e.g. L1 statements) are thought of as partial definitions, then the task of defining truth for an entire language may be seen as finding a way of generalizing the partial definitions so as to cover every sentence of the language.”

He goes on to note (ibid.) Tarski’s definition, which is to say that if an earlier iterate allows for additions without contradiction to the original proposition (truth statement) then it may be called “materially adequate”. If not, then it is not materially adequate, and hence no literal interpretation is possible.  Let me give examples of statements purported to describe the same event (a solar flare) to show what I mean:

1) A class X-7 solar flare occurred last Tuesday.

2) A class X-7 solar flare occurred at 22h 33m GMT Tuesday.

3) A class X-7, optical class 2B solar flare occurred at 22h 33m Tuesday.

4) A class X-7, optical class 2B solar flare occurred at 22h 33m GMT last Tuesday, and lasted 1440 seconds.

5) A class X-7, optical class 2B solar flare occurred at 22h 33m GMT last Tuesday, peaked 543 seconds after inception, and lasted a total of 1440 seconds.

 One can inquire Are all of the above statements (referencing the same event) true? Or better, are they all equally true? If not, why not? Can one therefore have true statements which do not express the entire truth but rather only a partial truth? If a partial truth only is expressed can it be said to be “the truth” without any reservations?

Obviously, the statements are successively true by degrees, but none of the statements are wholly and completely true unto themselves. Each statement, as one moves in ascending order, contains “more truth” than its predecessor. Thus (5) is more true than (4), (4) is more true than (3) and so forth. Is (5) the last word? Consider this description of the event:

"A class X-7, optical class 2B solar flare, occupying an area 1800 millionths of a solar hemisphere and located at heliographic longitude 90 degrees, and latitude 22 degrees, occurred at 22h 33m GMT last Tuesday, peaked 543 seconds after inception, and lasted a total duration of 1440 seconds. "

Thus, one cannot (in casual conversations) deliver all the truth on the solar flare at once, certainly about a physical event. In the course of normal conversation, and particularly teaching, one will therefore be forced to lie by omission. In the case of teaching, even attempting to convey the full basis of Newton’s laws of motion would take 100 times longer than the standard classical mechanics course if all details and exceptions were included. In the interest of time and convenience, therefore, one must “subvert” the whole truth. “The whole truth and nothing but the truth” may well be a fine courtroom fiction but it doesn’t make the reality cut.

All of which implies that any given biblical quotation  (each a false partial statement) falls under the same rubric and is at best only a partial truth - which explains why so many biblical contradictions abound. (Over 1,000 in the books of the New Testament alone!)  In a false partial truth statement we always have a proportion of pure fable or myth mixed in with the actual facts. Such degraded L1 statements are plausibly impossible to plumb to get even a partial truth statement. These sort of realities ought to alert us to be much more careful when we bandy about the word “truth” and cause us to acknowledge it’s much more difficult to isolate than many think.

Related to this is the seldom mentioned fact is that certain religious orientations are strongly associated with a lack of education.  The educational deficit is often such that the believers enthralled by fundamentalism are unable to consider truth in any kind of a nuanced format. Susan Jacoby has actually documented this education deficit for American fundamentalists, in terms of the “high correlation between poor education and biblical literalism" ('The Age of American Unreason', p. 189).

This is particularly exxtreme in the Deep South (e.g. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama) where high school graduation rates “lag as many as ten points” behind the Northeast and West. (Ibid.). Richard Hofstadter carries this even further to the extent of associating fundamentalism with a whole mindset of prejudice. He writes ('Anti-Intellectualism in American Life', p.  133 ):

"There seems to be such a thing as the generically-prejudiced mind. Studies of political tolerance and ethnic prejudice have shown that zealous church-going and rigid religious faith are among the most important correlates of political and ethnic animosity."

The profound absence of critical thinking ability (tied to poor education) and the inability to see moral gray areas are part and parcel of the same phenomenon, As Hofstadter notes (op. cit., p. 135):

"The fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with all this: it is essentially Manichean, it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan) and can tolerate no ambiguities."

Thus illustrates why those like Ms. Jacoby (and many humanists, atheists) disdain the use of the vanilla catchall term “evangelical” to describe fundamentalists. As she points out, this bland generic term can encompass “both theological liberals and conservatives". Hence, it is a disservice to forward thinking evangelicals to conflate them with a regressive cultist group that – in its own way – would dispatch them to “hell” as it does Jews, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and non-fundie Protestants. It is also important not to be so cowardly in the use of terms, because in order to recognize the reach of the Religious Right one needs to know exactly what part of the ideological spectrum is subsumed and pandered to….by the likes of Ralph Reed, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Pat Robertson and others.

Ms. Jacoby's proposition - and to a large extent Richard Hofstadter's - is that fundamentalists suffer notoriously from such a severe lack of education that they are unable to approach any concept or idea imbued with nuance. For this reason I consider the god-concept attributed to fundamentalists to be at the lowest end of the nuanced-God concept scale, more in the realm of a cartoon than a credible deity. But as my religious friend John Phillips once put it (see e.g.  ), this is what happens when people latch onto a book (King James Bible) “using only eight thousand different words in all” in order that its publishers achieve mass consumption. The problem is that book content that promotes mass consumption is usually inversely proportional to mature understanding.  

This leads into the derivative proposition that the American fundamentalist may actually be like an overgrown infant in his black and white outlook of the world, reality.  In the 1970s, Barbadian therapist Pat Bannister employed a technique which was made popular at the time, called "transactional analysis" (developed by Dr. Eric Berne). In this thematic, the ego was regarded as partitioned between three forces or alter-personas, known as" "Parent", "Child" and "Adult". It was also made popular by a number of paperback books, including the famous 'I'm Okay- You're Okay' by Amy and Thomas Harris.  

The title basically reflected the rationalist position of the adult ego - that it regards all other humans as "okay" as oneself and unconditionally - irrespective of their beliefs, so long as they don't incite or induce harm to others. One might even think of the words as a logical takeoff on Jefferson's words. Obviously, if one's fellows' exhibit beliefs that "neither pick one's pocket" or "break his legs" - than that other fellow or fellows are okay. Whether they want to engage in Wicca worship, Science of Mind, Eckanckar, ordinary spiritual scholarship, Islam or no belief at all.

The aim of therapy in Bannister's transactional analysis sessions (which sometimes included group therapy) was to entice religiously officious, self-righteous people to depress or reduce the role of their "parent". This part of the psyche is the finger-wagging, preachy, authoritarian, sanctimonious, 'know it all' that dictates what's best for all others and won't accept or tolerate any differences. "My way or the highway" is its byword, never mind they themselves are borderline psychotics or sociopaths.

Most relationship conflicts occur when one partner is overweighted with his "Parent" and the other has more of the "Child" - the uninhibited, playful and spontaneous self that likes to play games, joke, and not take life overly seriously. "Crossed transactions" denoted by P<-> C for example, are those for which two personas are constantly in conflict. It can also be: A<->P, as when a rationalist constantly goes against an authoritarian (e.g. in state of the world debates) who only knows how to quote his bible, but can't think.

Bannister's job (to assist  recovered bible beaters)  was to get them to reduce the "Parent" and upload more of the playful Child. At the same time, she sought to interject more of the rational adult in each partner - which would act as a bridge between parent and child. As Amy and Thomas Harris put it (‘Staying Okay', p. 16):

"The Child includes our instincts and biological urges, genetic recordings, our physical selves, curiosity and intuition. It contains joy as well as sadness. Whereas the Parent is filled with demands, directions and slogans, the Child is filled with desire. The Child is where the 'want to' motivation is"

The key about the Parent part of the psyche is that it's externally derived, while Adult and Child and internally manifested over time. The "Parent" is basically the ineradicable recording of one's early life history and it will be hyper-critical or nurturing or both, to the extent one's parents or primary caretakers were. It's created, in other words, via assimilation over time - mainly from the parents - but other external authorities may play their own role (say if the person went into the military and was subject to extreme military authority or even abuse to impose that authority - e.g. Marine boot camp at Parris Island being forced to clean latrines with their tongues, etc.) In this case, the "Parent" can devolve  into a pathological child, or negative mirror image of the healthy, free-spirited child in transactional analysis.

Meanwhile, the "Adult" is the ally and expediter of the rational and scientific mindset. The Adult reasons, thinks, predicts and figures out how to do things - and over a time, must use this template to consider the consequences of actions. In Bannister's therapy, the empowerment of the Adult was key to negotiating successful interactions between Parent and Child. As the authors note (p. 18):

"The Adult is not only a functional part of the personality but a state, observable by others in the present. A person in the Adult state appears thoughtful, rational and in the here and now. ...One of the important functions of the Adult is to update the Parent".

Part of this updating entails ridding the Parent of its overbearing demands and negativities, criticisms, so one can come to greater self-acceptance. For some personalities, almost taken over by their Parent, this is extremely difficult.

In his landmark work, Cruelty and Kindness: A New Look at Aggression and Altruism, author Harvey A. Hornstein hones in on some of the major personality dysfunctions and how they arise. Most enlightening is how he reveals the behaviors of what he calls "Authoritarians" - which would be extreme Parent-dominated types. One major defect? These people almost automatically discriminate between people - and reject those they consider as unworthy or not on their level, morally or in other ways. To these people: "Not all humans are created equal".

Hornstein further notes(p. 40):

 "Authoritarians are socially exclusive. Their prematurely definitive and harshly judgmental distinctions between ingroups and outgroups are fruitless attempts to resolve their own intra-psychic conflict. Their prejudice is an almost indelible aftermath of the quality of their childhood attachment to their principal cartetakers".

Thus, if the little person was often beaten with a ping pong paddle to nearly an inch of his life - say by a nursery school caretaker- he'd likely grow up in this mold. Add on some military training hazing and abuse, and you have almost the perfect anti-social personality, who not only believes HE is right, but condemns those who don't believe as he does. For example, to this person, 90% of those who don't believe as he does are destined for "hell".

We arrive then at an unsavory image of the American fundamentalist:   part uneducated boor, explaining his penchant and obsession for biblical literalism,  and part regressive brat, abounding in reactive prejudice. This also helps to account for his profound inability to cope with uncertainty or ambiguity, and why it's easier to see the world in terms of 'good guys' (the "saved') or "enemies" (those disgusting 'radical atheists') 

More important is to understand that these poorly educated, child-personality dominated infants are more and more fueling the ideology of the Whig-approaching Right in this country. Jacoby in her book (pp.185-86) shows the parallel growth of the Right Wing and  fundamentalist sects. Hence, as mainstream Protestant membership has shrunk, so also has conservative moderation. (In 1960, 59% of Americans belonged to "mainline Protestant" denominations, while only 43% did by 2003 - with the bulk fleeing into radical fundamentalism.

When we look at the deranged Right then, we need to understand that we ought to also fear the looneytune religious fundamentalists - mainly from the South - who fuel the extremist Right's insanity, and ultimately, the political-economic destruction of this nation. 

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